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Reducing Stall Boredom

A bored horse is an unhappy horse. Boredom for a horse can occur in many places, but it is most frequent in his stall. There are many common indications that a horse is bored. Some of these indicators can take a toll on their stall, such as kicking, or chewing on doors, walls, or grain or water buckets. Some horses may repeatedly bang their heads. Conversely, a quiet horse may do no more than look listlessly at the floor, will not look around, and will show little or no interest. But while that behavior is not damaging to the stall, it doesn't mean your horse is happy. Other symptoms of boredom are weaving, circling, and pawing.

NOTE: Before you self-diagnose your horse's problem as stall boredom, be sure to check with your veterinarian. There are also other reasons, some life threatening, for which a horse may display some of these symptoms, such as listlessness or head banging.

Stall & Horse Size
There are several reasons a horse can be bored when in a stall, but one of the biggest reasons is a stall that's too small for the horse. For a pony or small horse, a typical 10' x 10' stall can be ok. But for a full-size horse, it just isn't enough. It may have been big enough long ago, but like humans, horses have gotten bigger over the years. Unfortunately, some stalls can be even smaller, but they should never be used for a full-size horse.

Even with a 10' x 10' stall, there is little room for a typical horse to walk around and just barely enough to turn around or change position. Keeping droppings and food separate is difficult. Sometimes, hay may be dropped from above, at other times, it may be inserted through the stall doorway. Usually, an upper feed drop is toward the rear of the stall while the door is on the aisle. If your horse normally eats at the rear, he'll place droppings closer to the aisle. If you feed through the door, he'll do the reverse. If you feed from both places, some of that hay will end up on matter he doesn't want, and shouldn't eat. A stall is your horse's bedroom, dining room, and bathroom all in one — he's stuck having to do everything in the same space. So, in addition to boredom, the smaller the stall, the more frustrated your horse can be and the more he's compromised.

If your horse is very hungry, he may even eat food too close to or on droppings, and that can make him sick. And one of the byproducts of the breakdown of urine is ammonia gas which sits at the bottom of a stall. Bigger horses release more body wastes and smaller stalls essentially concentrate that waste. When your horse sleeps, his head is hung low and he's forced to breath this ammonia-laden air — it's not healthy for him. A bigger stall will improve both situations.

Even just adding two feet to one wall provides a 10' x 12' stall; that gives him an extra 20 square feet. Of course, a 10' x 14' or 12' x 12' stall is much better and provides 40% more space over a 10' x 10' stall. Stalls of this size let your horse turn around easily and keep food and dirty areas better separated. And being able to walk around a little will reduce his boredom. If you have a draft, consider 10' x 14' as the minimum.

Some experts will recommend larger minimum stall sizes, such as 12' x 16' or more, and that certainly is wonderful for your horse. But for most of us, money and space are limited. If you're stuck with a small stall, you should do everything you can to keep his space as clean as possible and give him plenty of time outside. Which leads us to our next reason:

Too Much Time
The second reason for stall boredom is just plain, too much time spent there. Horses are meant to be outside much of their day where they can graze, walk, run, and play. They are animals actually designed by nature to be on the move from grazing/walking to trotting/running to other places to do more grazing/walking. They're also very social animals and need to occasionally sniff and touch other horses — that's typically difficult to impossible when confined to a stall.

Make sure your horse has long enough and frequent enough turnout. Some show barns keep horses inside much of the time so they stay clean — that's not good for, nor fair to the horse. Showing is a human obsession — it's ok to do, but let your horse be a horse the rest of the time. If you don't, he won't be happy and could very well be unhealthy as a result of boredom and insufficient exercise.

In colder climes, icy conditions sometimes require us to keep our horses inside. When the weather doesn't permit turnout, you have other options. Visit often, take him out of his stall, and walk him around inside the barn. If there is enough room, trot beside him and make eight or ten passes up and down the barn aisle — it will be good for both of you and your horse will love it — mine certainly does.

You can also provide one or more horse-toys in his stall. That can be a ball hanging from a rope or even a snack from a rope. Some come in flavors like apple, carrot, or molasses. Other toys mount of the stall wall and let the horse spin them. Ceiling or wall mounted toys are preferred for a stall because they won't roll through droppings or other horse waste.

Not Enough Grazing Food
A third reason for boredom is feed restriction. Horses have truly developed to eat almost continuously. They eat slowly and most of their food is fibrous, so they need to keep a frequent flow passing through their digestive track to remain healthy. We've already discussed above that you can exercise your horse in the barn during winter months with ice outside. During such days, it's also important to offer your horse more hay — believe me, he's unlikely to get fat. But he will be able to keep his digestive system going and will definitely be a happier and less bored horse than if he has nothing to eat and do. You don't need to provide hay 24/7, but more small feedings through-out the day is healthier than just one in the morning and another in the evening. Free-choice hay is the best.

WATER, Water, water...
And DON'T FORGET to provide plenty of water. Horses need water at all times of year, not only in summer when it's hot. Winter air is usually very dry and horses lose valuable mositure with every breath. Water is also needed to aid digestion of feed and hay — give your horse plenty!

Stall Boredom Reduction Tips Stall boredom should not be ignored. Besides damage that a bored horse can afflict on a stall, there is also a physiological toll on the horse itself because stationary horses are not moving around and exercising their feet and legs. And that movement is also necessary to help food move through their digestive track. Prolonged periods of limited or no movement are downright unhealthy for your horse.
  • Provide ample stall space: 10' x 10' isn't much for a full-size horse. It's even worse for a draft.
  • Provide plenty of turnout.
  • When weather makes turnout dangerous, exercise in the barn.
  • Provide a horse toy or two in the stall.
  • Provide enough free-choice hay.

By choosing a barn with stalls of adequate size and just a little extra effort, you can make your horse's stall life healthier, happier, and definitely less boring.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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